The struggle of Anchorage homelessness, in song

Homeless in Anchorage, Mary Johnson lugged her few belongings from shelter bed to motel room.

She always kept a battered guitar with her. The days became songs: About wanting to quit drinking and change her life, about missing her family in Texas.

Johnson is no longer homeless. In October, she moved into a one-bedroom apartment with a view of mountain tops. But those songs, and the experience of living unhoused in Anchorage, stick with her.

“I’ve been through every step it takes to get to having a decent place,” Johnson said on a recent morning at her apartment, serving a cup of the strong coffee she favors. “I’ve got plenty of songs I can write about it.”

Johnson, a singer-songwriter, will be a featured performer in an Anchorage concert Sunday that features people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity in Anchorage.

Anchorage nonprofit Keys to Life’s Winter Voices concert will be held at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 10 at the Wilda Marston Theater in the Loussac Library. Tickets are available online and proceeds go to performers, said the organization’s founder and director, Shirley Mae Staten.

Keys to Life uses the arts and storytelling to help people see beyond their preconceptions of each other, Staten said. A concert featuring the songs and music of unhoused people seemed like a natural fit to her, she said. Previous projects include the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center lullaby project, in which incarcerated women wrote and recorded lullabies for their children.


Staten said she regularly hears stories about the negative impacts of homelessness on the community. Inviting unhoused people to perform at a concert, she said, might cause the audience to see them in a different way, as musicians.

“The idea is how do we change the conversation about those who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity?” she said.

Staten recruited musical shelter residents to perform. It hasn’t been easy: She said she has a solid lineup of musicians ready to perform in Sunday’s concert, but a few others may or may not show up.

“I think it has to do with lives that aren’t quite settled,” she said.

Johnson and Staten met more than year ago. Johnson had a powerful voice and a strong desire to write about her life experiences, Staten said.

“Music is her outlet, that’s her savior,” she said.

Johnson said she was born in a small West Texas town and raised mostly by her preacher grandparents. As an adult, she said, she performed as a drummer in Austin’s live music scene before she ended up in Hawaii. She worked on a taro farm and sold lilikoi cinnamon rolls for money, among other jobs. She was homeless there too, she said, but it was different: There was always a beach or a property she could camp on without fearing cold weather.

In 2022, Johnson and a partner decided to move to a property near Anchor Point with plans to build a rudimentary cabin and live off the grid. They spent months in what seemed like perpetual rain, living in a soaking tent. When the fireweed bloomed and people told them winter was weeks away, they realized their cabin dreams were far off and winter posed real danger, she said. They moved to Anchorage and found themselves homeless.

Johnson bounced between shelters including the Sullivan Arena and Brother Francis Shelter before being placed at the Guest House. She said two people she had befriended at the Sullivan Arena died.

Music helped her through. At the Sullivan Arena, “every time a fight broke out, I would grab my guitar,” she said. “And they focused on me playing, instead of their situation.”

She saw people try to meet with their caseworkers, fill out the necessary forms, wait for referrals and acceptances and move, inch by inch, closer to a permanent home. But a lot of people didn’t have the ability to follow those rules, Johnson said. “That’s going to crumble somebody’s spirit.”

Eventually, Johnson stopped drinking and secured an apartment. She now lives in a cozy one-bedroom in Government Hill with her rescue dog Sparky. She has almost no furniture yet, but there’s a coffee pot, her two guitars and an Eric Clapton record in the corner.

Music is still her constant companion.

One of the songs she plans to perform is a cover of “Gold” by Prince. The lyrics would replay in her head during the days and nights she spent at the Sullivan Arena: “Even at the center of the fire, there is cold/All that glitters ain’t gold.” Another, “Yellow Rose in the Wine” is about missing and loving her family from afar. Homelessness can be lonely, she said. And there’s “Change,” in which she describes her old life — waking up with a bottle in her hand, hearing her mother’s disapproval over the phone from thousands of miles away.

Johnson says she’s nervous about performing on Sunday. But she hopes people will listen.

“I’ve been there,” she said. “I’ve lived it.”

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.